Religious Leaders Seek Common Ground At Conference

NEW HAVEN — Tensions between Christians and Muslims are less the result of differences among believers than they are the result of their similarities, a Bosnian Muslim leader told a gathering at an interfaith conference at Yale University Tuesday.

Sheik Mustafa Ceric, the grand mufti of Bosnia, spoke to a group that came from five continents. More than 150 Muslims, Christians and Jews attended the conference, “Loving God and Neighbor in Word and Deed.”

The conference grew out of “A Common Word Between Us and You,” issued by a group of Muslims in October as a way to seek reconciliation.

“Ours is not a problem of difference. Ours is a problem of similarity,” Ceric said, mentioning the importance of the Holy Land as an example. “Don’t forget that those who are similar are often more severe than they are to those who are different.”

Ceric is the leader of the Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina and provided comfort and guidance to his people during the Serbian genocide in the 1990s. On July 11, 1995, 8,000 Muslim men were separated from their families in Srebrenica and killed as U.N. peacekeepers failed to act.

He told how he responded to two mothers who each lost six sons in the killing. “I cannot ask them to forgive,” he said. “You have the right to an eye for an eye. If you forgive, then you will be forgiven in the hereafter for your sins.”

During a coffee break later, Ceric said Europe must do more to prevent genocide. “It will be repeated,” he warned. But he said that the United States, “as far as Bosnia is concerned, should be proud. It was late (but) America understood more what we need in Bosnia than others.”

The theme of love of God and love of neighbor permeated speakers’ remarks in the Yale Law School auditorium Tuesday. The conference, led by Yale Divinity School professor Miroslav Volf and Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of Jordan, is the first in a series of meetings that seek to replace misunderstanding and hatred between believers with bonds of trust.

“I hope a new wind of hope is beginning to blow and that the rays of sun are penetrating the stormy darkness around us,” Volf said.

“A Common Word,” which Volf called “one such ray,” has a simple yet profound message, he said. “What brings Christians and Muslims together is the love of God and the two commandments to love God and love our neighbor.”

While it is the answer, “we don’t think that love is a soft and nebulous devotion,” Volf said, but that “justice is an absolutely integral part” of love.

He also assured the gathering that the purpose of the conference was not to remove or ignore the unique beliefs and practices of each faith. “Love does not erase these differences, but it enables people to accept others in their differences,” he said.

Prince Ghazi listed five issues that tend to divide Muslims and Christians, with responsibility shared by both faiths: the fate of Jerusalem, discontent with U.S. foreign policy, terrorism, fundamentalism and attempts at conversion by missionaries.

He warned that the horror of the Nazi Holocaust has reappeared in Bosnia and Rwanda and that the threat of genocide always looms. He warned of what could happen “when the competition for food and other natural resources becomes more scarce.”

While the conference is focusing on Muslim-Christian relations, several Jewish leaders are attending as well. Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon, of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, said it is appropriate to begin with the largest faith traditions.

“I think it was wise to start this way. I think this dialogue eventually will include Jews,” he said. “We’re always in the background in the conversation. We’re always there because Judaism engendered Christianity and greatly influenced Islam.”

He said the informal interactions are the greatest benefit of such conferences and that he has made friends in the Muslim world who now consult with him.

“We tend to want to see the others through our own eyes,” Matalon said. The path to understanding is to see others “the way they see themselves, not the way we want to see them.”